Monday, February 18, 2008

Whining Has Been a National Pastime for 200 Years

Adam Smith was a remarkably insightful guy. He not only figured out how expanding trade allows the division of labor, thereby creating wealth and raising living standards, he also realized how hard it is to get people to believe they're better off than their ancestors. He discovered declinism way back in 1776:

"The annual produce of the land and labour of England is certainly much greater than it was, a century ago. Few people doubt this, yet during this period, five years have seldom passed in which some book or pamphlet has not been published pretending to demonstrate that the wealth of the nation was fast declining, that the country was depopulated, agriculture neglected, manufactures decaying, and trade undone. Nor have these publications been all political party pamphlets. Many of them have been written by very candid and very intelligent people, who wrote nothing but what they believed, and for no other reason but because they believed it."

Sound familiar?

Nowadays, candid and intelligent people--not to mention partisans--tell us that the average American's standard of living has barely budged in decades. Supposedly only the rich are living better, while everyone else stagnates or falls behind.

Continue reading Virginia Postrel's excellent Forbes article "The American Standard of Whining" here. (It's from September 2006, but still just as relevant today as then.)


At 2/18/2008 10:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is the subject article designed to confuse the issue of whether the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer?

Having legal possession of a big screen TV, manufactured in China and acquired at the local big box, through clerks earning a little more than minimum wage, on a no payments or interest until next year plan is not wealth.

At 2/18/2008 3:24 PM, Blogger Shawn said...

..when i'm getting a 60" HD plasma for the price i could get a 27" tube 5 years ago, i'd call that an increase in quality of life.

At 2/18/2008 3:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Maybe that works for you if your quality of life is determined by TVs instead of health care costs, fuel costs, and foods costs. A lot of people determine quality of life quite differently. Although these are good times in a lot of ways, many people still have huge problems just making ends meet.

At 2/19/2008 2:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Compared to my ancestors, I gladly pay more for fuel, food, and health care.

I travel a lot more than they did. I eat better and in a more convenient way. And I live longer as a result of our current health care.

So, yes, that is what I'd call a stellar increase in quality of life.

Even the "poor" here have it better than the average citizen of Greece for example.

Yet, we still complain... It's human nature.

At 2/19/2008 7:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There’s a huge difference between complaining and being complacent. When we quit wanting to make things better, we can easily lose what got us there in the first place.

Winners, not whiners, always keep trying to improve and exceed their goals. If that sounds like complaining to some, well, that's OK.


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